The year – 1712 Before the Common Era. The great king and judge Hammurabi has died, and his son, Samsu-iluna attempts to hold his father’s sprawling empire of Babylon together. He is unsuccessful, and instead, the careful order constructed by his father, crumbles into chaos.
Across the Euphrates lives a man, known by many to be eccentric. He claims to speak to G-d, and not just any G-d, but an abstract G-d, a G-d who takes no physical form, who cannot be seen, and who promises things that will be fulfilled years and years into the future. But despite his radical claims, this man is widely respected – he is powerful, wealthy, and exceptionally kind. He is known to treat every stranger with love, every passerby as if they’re family. While nearby Babylon is burning, descending into anarchy, Abraham our patriarch, Avraham Avinu is preaching a message of justice and of peace, of love and of life. He preaches not of a G-d who man must believe in, but in a G-d who believes in man.
One night, while deep in sleep, near his beloved wife, Avraham has a vision. This is nothing out of the ordinary, he has had many prophetic visions. But this vision is different. It is a violent vision, a vision of coldblooded murder, a vision of his G-d asking of him, commanding him, to take his beloved son and bring him up as an offering. Child sacrifice.
He wakes up in a cold sweat and sees his beloved wife sleeping soundly. He recalls their struggles, their journey. How they left the comfort of their home to pursue his visions. How they encountered adversity every step of the way. How their relationship was tried and tested through their childlessness. How they somehow, miraculously had a child at an exceptionally old age. All of that comes crashing down with the words; “Take your child, the one you love, and bring him up as an offering.”
It must have been a dream, a nightmare, not a vision from his loving G-d! Avraham closes his eyes and tries to fall back asleep.
But sleep eludes him. He cannot sleep.
And so he slips out of bed, making sure not to wake his wife Sarah, and he quietly awakens his beloved son, Isaac, and with tears in his eyes, he whispers, “We need to go.”
They travel for three days. In absolute silence.
Isaac knows something is terribly wrong, he knows his father is in deep turmoil and he has a dreadful, foreboding sense that it has to do with him. After all, if they’re going to bring sacrifices, as the firewood and sharp knife seem to indicate, “where is the lamb?” that is meant to be slaughtered.
But Isaac is silent, respectful, stoic.
Each night, they set up a makeshift campsite and Isaac quickly falls asleep, tired from a day of traveling, but Avraham cannot sleep. He tosses, he turns, he is physically and emotionally drained, but paralyzing fear overwhelms his body preventing it from drifting asleep. “Did I really hear G-d say what I think He said?” “Maybe it was just a dream?” “Maybe this has all been one long dream! Maybe everyone back home was right. Maybe” – he can’t believe he is even considering it – “but maybe G-d does not exist. Maybe my mind was just playing tricks with me. Maybe it’s time to turn around and go home. Sarah must be so worried…”
And then that voice is countered with another, a whisper; “What if?!” What if G-d does exist? What if G-d really did create this world? What if G-d really did imbue me with a soul and with a purpose? What if G-d wants me to do something with my life? What if?
And Avraham forges forward.
The Medrashim teach us that every moment of Avraham’s journey to Mt. Moriyah was filled with internal debate; was this all just a big mistake?
Because you see, Avraham’s belief in G-d led to some pretty uncomfortable conclusions. Uncomfortable physically – Personally I’m afraid of getting a shot at the doctor, he circumcised himself at the age of 99… Uncomfortable emotionally – he was alienated from his entire family. And ultimately, his belief in G-d took him within a step of slaughtering his own son.
It would have been far more comfortable to just imagine it all to be a dream. Just like it’s far more comfortable to ignore the nagging feeling that something is lacking in our lives. It’s far more comfortable to continue on, doing the exact same things we’ve always done. It’s far more comfortable to stop questioning our life trajectory once we graduate from college or we get married or buy a house. You know what it would mean to rethink my life right now?
But what if. What if it’s real. What if it’s true?
What if all this is more than just tradition and rituals and apple cake for dessert?
What if G-d did speak to your great-great-great-grandparents and gave them a moral code, a set of laws to live their life by? Like, for real. Not just something to tell our children at the Pesach seder.
What if G-d expects something of us? Not just a general-fuzzy-be-a-better-person-and-light-unto-the-nations type of expectation, but in a very particular fashion, with daily prayer, Torah study, lashon hara, and kosher. What if?
I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say this out loud, but it’s true and so I will. I have asked myself if G-d exists. More often than not, I know He does. More often than not, I think about the incredible world around me, about the miracle of Jewish continuity, about the wonders of creation and there is no question. More often than not, I feel like I am talking to some Being as I stand in prayer. And I just know.
But I have wondered. I have wondered if it’s all a game that I was born into, if it’s all just a fable that has kept our people alive. I have wondered if my decisions really make a difference? If there’s really any purpose?
In those moments – moments I should add, that are rather scary, rather dark, with implications that I’ve dedicated my life to a fairytale, that’s a pretty dark thought.
In those dark moments of doubt, invariably, another voice in my head responds with two words: What if?
There is very little that we know for certain. From the early days of the Enlightenment and on, we have questioned every one of our religious dogmas and in our 21st century world of fake news, and alternative facts, we have become even more skeptical, and for good reason. So I cannot prove to you, or tell you definitively that G-d exists. But what if? What if He does.
We’re all going to pray in just a few moments. How many of us really truly believe in what we’re going to say?
The great 15th century philosopher, Rav Yosef Albo explains that the three blessings in Mussaf correspond to the three most fundamental Jewish beliefs.
The first section, that of Malchuyot that speaks to G-d being our King. We are proclaiming that He created the world, and controls it.
The section of zichronot. We are proclaiming that G-d is aware of everything we do, nothing escapes His attention.
And the section of shofrot. We are proclaiming that we believe that the shofar that was blown at Mt. Sinai and that G-d gave us a set of laws that He expects us to live our life by.
Do we believe any of that? Do we think about that during our daily routine? How does our belief impact us when we make major and minor life decisions? Are we any different because of our faith?
We like the tunes, we like the comforting feel of our seat, surrounded by our family and friends. But what if this was all real? What would that mean practically? Not just for the rest of this morning. What would it mean practically beyond the here and now?
Probably, a lot.
If G-d really existed, and G-d really knew what we’re thinking, watched our actions, and wanted us to do something with our lives, something very specific, and if we don’t, there will be consequences, our lives would look different, wouldn’t they?
That’s a very uncomfortable thought. So uncomfortable that I should probably pivot to a heartwarming story right now. But I won’t.
It’s okay to be uncomfortable from time to time. Let’s just sit, or squirm for a moment with the possibility that G-d is real, the Torah is true, and that there really is a court case taking place right now, reviewing our record in light of the Torah’s commandments, and if we were honest with ourselves, we’re probably not doing so well.
All the things we said this year that we shouldn’t have said.
All the things we did this year that we shouldn’t have done.
And all the many missed opportunities. All the days, weeks, and months wasted in pursuit of what?
Let’s just sit with that for a moment.
Now the truth is, there is another possibility, but I find it to be equally uncomfortable, if not more so. It’s a possibility that Avraham grappled with many years before the Binding of Isaac. It’s a possibility that was taken for granted on the other side of the Euphrates back at home, in the ancient Mesopotamian world. A different what if: What if that loving G-d does not exist? What if my life has no intrinsic meaning whatsoever? What if this really is all meaningless?
This is how writer/ blogger/ philosopher, Mark Manson puts it:
“If I worked at Starbucks,” he writes, “instead of writing people’s names on their coffee cup, I’d write the following:
One day, you and everyone you love will die. And beyond a small group of people for an extremely brief period of time, little of what you say or do will ever matter. This is the Uncomfortable Truth of life. And everything you think or do is but an elaborate avoidance of it. We are inconsequential cosmic dust, bumping and milling about on a tiny blue speck. We imagine our own importance. We invent our purpose—we are nothing.
Enjoy your coffee.”
You see, neither of these what-ifs end well. The inherently meaningful world of a G-d, a soul, a set of rules and expectations – that’s terribly overbearing. Or the meaningless world without a purpose or Creator, of pure biology, and of arbitrary codes of conduct – that’s terribly depressing.
But instead of thinking and choosing, we drink our caramel macchiato – complaining about the lack of plastic straws, of course, while we scroll to the next email/ message/ or Facebook post. We ignore this dilemma, don’t we? We distract ourselves from these uncomfortable possibilities of existence, because who in the world wants to think about that?!
Or – we do something even better. Something far more sophisticated. You and me. That’s right, you and me, in shul, this Rosh Hashana morning. We’re very clever. This is what we do:
You and I have just enough spirituality, tradition, faith and meaning in our lives to escape the depressing thought of being cosmic dust. But not too much spirituality, tradition, faith, and meaning to make our lives too difficult. A little bit of sacrifice makes me feel good, too much and I’m getting heartburn. “I don’t want to be a fanatic.” We’re clever, aren’t we?
In a TED talk, viewed by almost 3 million people, swiss philosopher, Alan de Botton proposed, what he described as Atheism 2.0. It’s starting point is a disbelief in G-d, but he suggests that this disbelief should not preclude one from borrowing what is good in religion. You got that? He’s an atheist, so he does not believe in G-d but he wants to take what is good from religion. In his words:
“I’m interested in the kind of constituency that thinks something along these lines: that thinks, “I can’t believe in any of this stuff. I can’t believe in the doctrines. I don’t think these doctrines are right. But… I love Christmas carols. I really like the art of Mantegna. I really like looking at old churches. I like turning the pages of the Old Testament.” Whatever it may be, you know the kind of thing I’m talking about — people who are attracted to the ritualistic side, the moralistic, communal side of religion, but can’t bear the doctrine. Until now, these people have faced a rather unpleasant choice. It’s almost as though either you accept the doctrine and then you can have all the nice stuff, or you reject the doctrine and you’re living in some kind of spiritual wasteland under the guidance of CNN and Walmart.”
He goes on to suggest that atheists adopt what he considers to be the good things in religion, things like a calendar and rituals that remind us of important values. Art and music that is not art for art’s sake. Art that is meant to move people in one way or another. An educational model that is more than just sharing information; an educational model that assumes people need help and guidance. And my favorite, sermons – he suggests that atheists need more sermons. Go figure.
And as I’m listening to his talk, I’m thinking, this isn’t atheism 2.0, this is religion 2.0! It’s what we do!
If we were honest with ourselves, isn’t our religion, the Judaism that we practice just a mashup of a bunch of Jewish cultural components that make us feel good? How much of what we do is driven by faith and how much of what we do is driven by comfort? This is what I’m used to. This is what my friends do. This is what I’ve always done.
And this is true, by the way, whether you drove here today or walked, whether you have a sheitel on your head or a kippah that keeps on slipping off, whether you were born into this lifestyle or you’ve taken leaps and bounds to get here, How much of our Jewish life today is intentional and how much of our Jewish life is a product of habit? How much of our Jewish day-to-day living is about G-d and how much of our Jewish life is about us?
G-d doesn’t only care about how many mitzvot you are performing on a daily basis. Judaism is not a point system or a diet (it’s definitely not a diet!). He wants us to be connected to Him, to have a relationship with Him. Do we believe in Him? Are we seeking a personal connection with Hashem? Do we believe the Torah is true? Do we believe G-d sees us and cares? Because if we did, if we really did, if we were really honest with ourselves, I don’t think any of us would live the life we are currently living.
Our tradition teaches us that when Avraham was a young man he was arrested and given a mock trial. He was accused of planting dangerous seeds of rebellion against the establishment with his radical ideas of monotheism. After a quick decision by this kangaroo court, Avraham was given a choice – renounce his beliefs, state publicly that he was mistaken, or burn at the stake. Avraham, with his head held high, publicly reaffirmed his belief in a kind and loving G-d. Our tradition teaches us that Avraham was thrown into a fiery pit and was miraculously saved.
Less well-known, is that the same Medrashic passage informs us that Avraham had a brother; his name was Chur. And right before Avraham was thrown into the fiery pit, they asked his brother, Chur, “What about you? Do you believe in the monotheistic G-d of Avraham or are you a polytheist like the rest of us?”
Chur told the judge that he needed to think about it, and he’ll let him know after Avraham was thrown into the fire pit. Chur was clever. Maybe a little too clever.
After Avraham emerged from the fiery pit unscathed, Chur loudly announced that he too was a believer in G-d. So they threw him in the fire. And he died.
Life is too precious, life is too fleeting, life is too darn short to hedge our bets. Are you an atheist? Be an atheist. Are you a believer? Be a believer. The message of the Medrash is clear – you cannot be both. Whatever path you choose, choose it fully, as uncomfortable as it may be.
It was a brilliantly clear day in Jerusalem, Avraham, ready to collapse from exhaustion, tied his beloved son to the altar they had built together. With tears pouring from his eyes, Avraham lifted the knife, ready to fulfill the will of G-d. And G-d said, “Stop!” “You have proven yourself. You do believe in G-d.”
And in Isaac’s place, Avraham brought a ram; a ram whose horn we blow every Rosh Hashana. That ram’s horn, which we will be blowing in just a moment is a reminder of Avraham’s deep and unyielding faith. As we hear its sound, listen closely, it will be asking us one simple question. A question that needs to be answered by everyone of us, every day of our life: